It’s a LONG PIECE by James Fallows of The Atlantic:
Mitt Romney is far less effective as a big-speech orator than Barack Obama, and in many other aspects of campaigning he displays what appear to be laboriously studied moves rather than anything that comes naturally. But debates are and have been his strength. He grew up enjoying “big, boisterous arguments about everything around the dinner table,” according to his campaign strategist and main debate-prep specialist, Stuart Stevens. “He loves the dialectic of arguing the different sides, and he’s most uncomfortable when no one is disagreeing with him.” He will enter this fall’s encounters with very recent, successful experience in a very wide range of formats and challenges.
In none of the Republican-primary debates was Romney judged the big loser; in many he was the clear winner, and as the campaign wore on, the dominant image from the debates was of a confident Romney, standing with a slight smile on his face and his hands resting easily in his pockets, looking on with calm amusement as the lesser figures squabbled among themselves and sometimes lashed out at him.
Civics teachers won’t want to hear this, but the easiest way to judge “victory” in many debates is to watch with the sound turned off, so you can assess the candidates’ ease, tenseness, humor, and other traits signaled by their body language. By this standard, Ron Paul, with his chronically ill-fitting suits, often looked cranky; Rick Santorum often looked angry; Rick Perry initially looked poleaxed and confused; Jon Huntsman looked nervous; Newt Gingrich looked overexcited—and so on through the list until we reach Mitt Romney, who almost always looked at ease. (As did Herman Cain, illustrating that body language is not everything.) Romney looked like the grown-up—the winner, the obvious candidate—with or without sound. “He is as good as it gets in debating,” former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who was the first major contender to drop out of the Republican race, told me. “He is poised, prepared, smart, strategic—tactical, too.”
Barack Obama got himself in trouble only once during his primary and general-election debates four years ago. That was in January 2008, just after Obama’s surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses, when a questioner at a New Hampshire debate asked Hillary Clinton about polls showing that people respected her but didn’t like her. She handled the question with perfect comic-dramatic poise and timing. First she feigned a crushed look and said that her feelings were hurt. Then she said, with melodramatic jokey pluck, “I’ll try to go on!” Finally she said of Obama, warmly, “He’s very likable! I agree with that.” Then, a moment later, and charmingly, “I don’t think I’m that bad.” Obama, obviously off balance, said in reply, “You’re likable enough, Hillary”—a line that was presumably meant to sound light but came across as coldly supercilious, in part because he didn’t even look at her when delivering it. Maybe this was the moment when Obama realized that jock-style put-down banter, common among men in certain circumstances and often associated with both Obama and George W. Bush, comes across very differently when applied by a man to a woman. Or maybe he just made a mistake—one of the very few in his hundreds of hours before cameras during his presidential campaign.
Obama got better, steadier, and more relaxed-seeming as the 2008 debates went on. But they were never his strength, compared with formal speeches, and his team surely realizes that many circumstances of this year’s debates will work to his disadvantage.